In February of this year I got into an argument on the SR blog comments section about whether we should be taking an all or nothing approach to animal use. If we wanted to best support the use of animals in biomedical research, should we also be defending eating animals, hunting animals, cosmetic testing, fur farming, etc.
“I’ve been working to get people to understand that if they want their pet dogs, gerbils, monkeys, foxes, lions, or whatever, they had better be on the side of medical researchers, hunters including “canned” hunters, fur farmers, and all animal users”
I imagine that different readers of our blog will have diverse views on some of these things. Living in the UK there is not much of a culture of hunting (and can be seen as a pastime of the rich elite). Fox-hunting was banned in 2004, and other forms of hunting are banned or heavily regulated. I am also fully in support of the UK’s 1998 ban on cosmetic testing – I do not believe the harm to animals outweighs the benefits in this situation. On the other hand I eat meat, and do not feel morally in the wrong to do so (though I would say that medical research on animals has a stronger justification). I also believe that animal welfare should remain a priority in the food industry. In short, support some forms of animal use and not others.
So what was our commenter’s reasoning for his ‘all for one and one for all’ argument.
All that happens with that attitude is that they take us apart piece by piece. I am very much for cosmetics testing and fox hunting because if I give them the power to take those away, they have already come and taken away dog breeding and pet ownership.
This slippery slope argument makes no sense if you have reasons for supporting one activity and not the other. If you think there might be some logic in the above sentence, then consider this argument instead: “I am for bear baiting and dog fighting, because if I allow that to be taken away, they’ll ban owning pets”.
While it would be hard to ban pet ownership before banning animal research or hunting (or indeed bear-baiting; which is now banned), this is not an argument for keeping it. In other words, we should keep animal research because it is vitally important to medicine, NOT because it ensures pet ownership stays off the animal rights hit list.
The argument continued.
You’ve also given hunters, dog breeders, and exotic animal owners much less reason to support you and they will end up giving the extremists the power to take you out. Everyone must support everyone.
They should support animal research because it may one day save their life, or the lives of those around them, not to save their own cause.
In the US, Great Ape research has been at the forefront of the scientific debate. Now personally, I’m not convinced of the arguments in favour of great ape research (aside from research aimed at conserving great apes from disease like Ebola) and I live in a country which has banned it (since 1986). Nonetheless, there are two types of arguments being had about Great Ape research. The first is a legitimate and important debate about whether Great Apes are necessary research subjects, and whether the suffering caused is justified by medical advances that could not come any other way. The second is a meaningless (and thankfully much less used) argument that says “if they ban Great Ape research then later they’ll ban research on lower primates – which are really important to research”. I’m afraid this second argument just doesn’t hold water.
I start by using a model used previously by Dario Ringach on another SR post. On the far left we have the Cartesian view that animals are automaton who cannot feel pain in any way, at the other end we have absolute animal rights whereby animals have right to land and liberty – so at its absolute limit you couldn’t displace a worm to build a house.
Now let’s modify it slightly by cutting off the ends.
You don’t have to travel far from the Cartesian view before the idea that an animal has no more moral importance than a brick doesn’t hold true. So we have a cut off there; to the left is the do-what-you-want-to-animals zone; and to the right is the balance-suffering-and-benefit zone. So everything to the right of that split allows the idea that animals have a level of moral consideration (more consideration as you move rightwards). On the right hand side, we have a cut off further away from the end. Everything cut off on the animal rights side fundamentally says you cannot use an animal for the benefit of a human. There is still some gradation of views between “leave-the-animal-completely-alone” to “carry-out-tests-on-an-animal-to-save-that-specific-animal” (obviously this is without consent, thus why it is further away from pure animal rights views).
Between the two splits is a region where animal research is permissible in principle, but would need some level of cost-benefit analysis before it could be carried out.
Let us look a bit deeper.
Now the whole area marked by the no-entry sign is what Dario described as the “forbidden zone”. We know animals can suffer and so cutting open monkeys without anaesthetic is clearly a no-no. Similarly using ten thousand monkeys to make another common cold remedy is a no-no – the moral balance doesn’t make sense. Similarly bear baiting is clearly in this forbidden zone since it treats animals as having minimal moral worth.
Most researchers’ views will be in the blue arrow region. At one end some would agree you could do invasive and potentially painful surgery on many animals for some small human benefit (e.g. new indigestion treatment). At the other end would suggest that, perhaps, only a few mice could be used, if no pain was expected, in order to find a cure of cancer.
In truth, regulations probably mean that what some researchers and members of the public would find acceptable (the far left of the blue arrow) is not allowed. For example, in the UK, cosmetic testing would probably come at the far end of the blue arrow (so some people find it acceptable, others do not) yet regulations do not permit it. The same might be said for fox hunting. Food production’s position on the line would depend on the animal welfare considerations it was done under.
The green arrow would be the views of an animal rights advocate. Few exist right at the far right end (where, say, you couldn’t take a medicine to kill a tapeworm), but few will cross the gap into suggesting that we have a right to use animals in testing (and those that do probably shouldn’t be considered animal rights activists).
What can clearly be seen is that there is no “middle ground” where both sides generally agree. No matter how many improvements are made in animal welfare, they will never agree to animal research, or eating meat.
As someone who supports animal welfare and animal research we are not all in it together. I am not “in it” with those who care little for animal welfare. Neither am I “in it” with those who believe animals have rights.